The Lousy Hero?

We love our protagonists, our hero/heroines.  Why else would we write about them?
Writers often create lead characters that they like, or would like to be like, a good person with problems, someone sympathetic, maybe even adorable, certainly spunky.   But I believe the writer who doggedly creates the good-as-can-be hero/ine path is short-changing his or her work and development as a writer, as well, of course, as the reader.

What about adding serious flaws to your “good” character, give him/her self-caused problems to battle instead of the problems all coming from the dastardliness of others or vagaries of fate?  Battling ourselves is at least as interesting as battling the bad guys ‘n gals.  The problems can be more difficult than bad parents or misleading friends, Martians, Corpo-types, nature-gone-wild, Vampirish Werewolves, the government, the greed of others, etc.

Too often I’ve heard in critique groups, “I just don’t like the main character; why would I want to read about him/her?”  Well, I suppose that’s a legitimate perspective and has some audience out there in reader-land.  But writing a nasty antihero, can help deepen your understanding of character and bring greater dimension to your work.  Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art:  Thoughts on writing says, “…it helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements.”

Badness is a juicy role.  We hate these characters because we love to hate them.   They’re so interesting.  Donald E. Westlake (<i>The Ax</i>, <i>The Hook</i>, and, writing as Richard Stark for the Parker mysteries) loved to use anti-heroes with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  But a large part of Westlake’s genius was in leading us to understand these “bad” guys, even seeing how we, his readers, could become so twisted as to kill the way they did.  Although, the frequency of their killing leads us again to doubt our changing opinion of them.  We as readers are in a rocking boat on a turbulent sea.  Isn’t that a great feeling while safe at home or the beach or (?) reading a book or Kindle/Nook/iPad/smart phone?

How do you feel about bad guy/gal protagonists?  Do they turn you off or intrigue you?  Who’s your favorite?  Have you tried to write one?  I welcome comments and will reply.

5 thoughts on “The Lousy Hero?”

  1. I would like to hear more about the role of fiction in improving the human condition. I wonder about this because I heard recently, while visiting in Texas,
    that women who read romance novels go to conventions where guys who look like these heroes show up to be screamed over. I hope for more from fiction, but on the other hand, maybe its pretty bad for these gals in their real lives.

    1. Valerie,
      As to your comment re: “in Texas, women who read romance novels go to conventions where guys who look like these heroes show up,” I think there is little hope for their condition. (My guess is you’re just pulling my reins on this one.) Regarding your more general and important question about “the role of fiction in improving the human condition,” there have been times and authors—Dickens, Swift, Steinbeck, even Ayn Rand, among many others—who have written for this purpose. But most contemporary readers seem more interested in the psychological states of characters and how they deal with more personal issues. Fiction certainly should do both, especially in times like this when the condition of so many people tends to be tumbling. Thanks for the comment.

  2. We love anti-heroes. I think in a way Scarlett O’Hara is one of our great anti-heroes. She never really does redeem herself. Rhett is the one who has a moral compass, but he’s not exactly a hero either. Great metaphor for civil war, but also great reading.

    1. Thanks, Anne. You raise a good writer’s question: Should we create a hero/ine who has no redeeming features and is unlikeable in other ways?…assuming we aren’t Wm. Shakespeare, or even Philip Roth (I’m thinking of

    2. Sabbath’s Theater
    3. ).

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